When I was 15 years old, I picked up a tatty old paperback from my uncle John’s old bedroom in my grandparents’ house that got left behind when he moved out. It had a frankly garish cover that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 1980s metal band album cover (complete with the token large-breasted woman), but it was by that guy who co-wrote Good Omens which I’d read a year before and loved so surely it wouldn’t be that bad?
Reader, not only was it not bad, it was one of those books causes such a profound shift in thinkng you know you’ll never quite be the same again. The book was Mort, by Terry Pratchett, the fourth entry into his Discworld series.
I bring this up not to tell everyone to go out and read Pratchett (I mean, you absolutely should… but more on that later), but because when I was trying to think of how to begin this post, I remembered a snippet of an interview with Pratchett that another author, Patrick Rothfuss, posted on his blog in the days after Pratchett’s death. The interviewer questioned why an author of Pratchett’s immense talent would choose to write fantasy of all things, noting that it is “less serious than science fiction”. This was Pratchett’s reply:
(Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy…Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now—big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections— That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.
…Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.
(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.
As someone who writes and is currently writing novels that fall under the fantasy umbrella, reading that quote gave me such a sense of validation. I love fantasy. I have done since I was too young to remember. I cut my teeth on fantasy, first on the Ladybird editions of classic fairytales (yup, fairytales are totally part of the fantasy genre) before moving to on to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.
Even now, reading fantasy feels like coming home. It has meant so much to me over the years and whenever I hear people deride it as worthless or lacking literary value, I can feel my hackles rise.
Having said that, I completely understand that it can be an intimidating genre to dive into and that certain subgenres of fantasy will not be for everyone. So, in a similar fashion to my previous post on getting started with science fiction, I decided to put together a list of recommendations for anyone willing to expand their horizons and take a leap into the wonderful world of fantasy.
Let’s begin, shall we?
What is Fantasy?
Fantasy might be the one genre that’s even more difficult than science fiction to define. Wikipedia isn’t much help because it opens its entry on fantasy by stating:
Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe
Which is already problematic since tonnes of fantasy works take place right here in our universe (The Dresden Files and Harry Potter immediately jump to mind).
The entry goes on to say:
Fantasy is distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the absence of scientific or macabre themes respectively, though these genres overlap. In popular culture, the fantasy genre predominantly features settings of a medieval nature. In its broadest sense, however, fantasy consists of works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians from ancient myths and legends to many recent and popular works.
So… not exactly helpful then.
Broadly speaking, Fantasy literature includes any or all of the following elements: magic, supernatural elements, fictional creatures, fictional worlds, and fictional history. It can be serious, humourous, epic in scale or focused and contained. Like science fiction, fantasy can be broken down into a number of subgenres. Some common ones include:
- High fantasy (also called epic fantasy): this is probably what comes to mind when you think of “fantasy”—typically set in an entirely fictional world, often (but not always) medieval-inspired, and epic in scale. Examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein, The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, and Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
- Low fantasy: stories that take place in our world but with an added fantastical element. Apart from the works I listed above, stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper are good examples.
- Magical realism: sometimes the term magical realism is used to denote books that are thought to have more “literary merit” than typical fantasy stories, but more generally it refers to works of fiction where fantastical elements are commonplace and the nature of reality is questioned. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez are two examples that spring to mind.
- Grimdark: a relatively new subgenre of fantasy, grimdark works are usually, well, grim and dark. They typically eschew traditional fantasy ideals of good and evil and instead, favour more realistic or gritty interpretations of humanity. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
- Urban fantasy (also called contemporary fantasy): stories that are set in the present day, usually in cities, which typically contain elements of the paranormal or supernatural and often take the form of noir or police procedurals. They also often include romance or romantic subplots. Great examples of this genre are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.
This is only the tip of the iceberg—there are dozens more subgenres to explore so I guarantee there’s something out there for everyone.
With that in mind, here’s my list of book recommendations to help you figure out what kind of fantasy books you might like to add to your TBR.
Warning: A few mild spoilers ahead.
If you enjoyed fairytales growing up try…
My first Naomi Novik book was Uprooted, a standalone fantasy that also has strong fairytale vibes, but I think that it’s Spinning Silver where she takes the concept and makes it shine. Drawing on elements of the Rumpelstiltskin tale and Slavic folklore and mythology, Spinning Silver is really a story of compassion and power and women doing remarkable things. It has a unique mythos and a darkness that runs just beneath the surface giving the whole book a sense of quiet menace that I can’t get enough of.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.
My second pick for this section isn’t really a reinterpretation of a fairytale but it is a book that feels like the fairytale genre’s spiritual successor—Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
In the land of Ingary, where seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility do exist, Sophie Hatter catches the unwelcome attention of the Witch of the Waste and is put under a spell.
Deciding she has nothing more to lose, she makes her way to the moving castle that hovers on the hills above Market Chipping. But the castle belongs to the dreaded Wizard Howl whose appetite, they say, is satisfied only by the souls of young girls… There she meets Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and Calcifer the Fire Demon, with whom she agrees a pact.
But Sophie isn’t the only one under a curse – her entanglements with Calcifer, Howl, and Michael, and her quest to break her curse is both gripping – and howlingly funny!
Yes, this is a children’s/YA book but honestly, it’s just so magical I would recommend it to anyone looking to reignite their sense of childhood wonder.
I adore Diana Wynne Jones and I think few children’s authors even come close to her level of creativity. Her books were just so damn weird! But they’re also magical through and through. Plenty of her books have become comfort reads for me but it’s Howl’s Moving Castle I turn to time and again whenever I need a mental hug.
If you’re a fan of detective novels try…
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch are similar in premise but very different in execution. Both are about wizards who solve crimes, but whereas Harry Dresden is a bit of a lone wolf with a dark past, Peter Grant is a relative newbie to the magical world and we get to follow along with him as he learns just what he’s gotten himself into.
The place to start with The Dresden Files is Storm Front:
Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.
As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.
Storm Front is a solid beginning but like any police procedural/detective series, I feel like it takes a few books before you really start to care about any of the characters. For me personally, it was book three, Grave Peril, where things really took off. Harry is such a compelling character to follow and as the series progresses we get to see him grow and change. He’s funny and sarcastic and (stupidly) brave. There’s also a nerdy pathologist with a penchant for polka music and a filthy-minded talking skull called Bob. I mean, come one. That’s pretty great.
Having said that, there are a few…um…let’s just say weaker entries to wade through (I won’t get into it here because of spoilers, but there’s a fairly icky storyline that I really struggle to deal with whenever it rears its ugly head). There’s also a slightly misogynistic undertone (in the vein of describing every woman’s body in excruciating detail) that makes me roll my eyes every now and again, but if you’re able to get past these quibbles, Dresden Files really is such a fun series.
The series is currently 15 books deep with book number 16 (hopefully) due out in 2020 so there’s plenty to keep you occupied.
(P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend listening to these books on audio. James Marsters is Harry Dresden).
Rivers of London kicks off the Peter Grant series which is currently up to seven books with the eighth coming out in 2020.
Probationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.
It suffers from a few of the same problems as The Dresden Files (every woman being a total babe who’s hot for the protagonist) but is maybe a bit more self-aware.
Definitely worth checking out if you like British police procedurals.
If you don’t believe that Fantasy can tackle some big questions try…
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. I read the first entry in the series, Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it was renamed in North America) for the first time when I was around eleven years old and it blew my tiny mind. It was the first time a book made me question things like religion and the afterlife and it may or may not have thrown me into a mild existential panic (spoiler alert: it totally did).
Outside of that, it’s just a gorgeously written story and every entry in the series adds layers of nuance and depth to the story of Lyra Belaqua and her quest to save the world.
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want–but what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other.
I’ve gushed about Terry Pratchett already so I’ll keep this one brief. Small Gods is part of the Discworld series but can be read as a standalone novel in its own right. It’s also the funniest book about religion and the nature of faith and belief that you’ll ever read. It posits that Gods can only exist as long as they are remembered and the more followers you have, the more powerful you are. The Great God Om learns this the hard way when he loses almost all his followers and is forced to live life as a small tortoise. Hilarious and thought-provoking, Small Gods is a fantastic introduction to Terry Pratchett and the world that made him famous.
Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’ Religion is a controversial business in the Discworld. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods. Who come in all shapes and sizes. In such a competitive environment, there is a pressing need to make one’s presence felt. And it’s certainly not remotely helpful to be reduced to be appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book. In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast. Preferably one who won’t ask too many questions…
If you love heist movies try…
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is probably one of the most fun fantasy books I’ve ever read. It’s got strong echoes of Oceans Eleven as well as mafia movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather… if they were set in a fantasy version of 18th century Venice.
I have seen some people complain that it takes a while to get going, but I was so immersed in what, to me, is one of the more unique fantasy settings that I didn’t mind the slower pace at all. There are also a lot of flashbacks which, again, didn’t bother me. In fact, they were some of my favourite parts. I loved seeing who Locke and Jean were before they became The Gentlemen Bastards and it opened up so many questions about what happened to them in the intervening years. If you’re ok with a slower pace and lots of lush description (peppered with very colourful language) then give this one a go. Honestly, this book is so damn good I think it’s high time for a reread.
An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.
On the surface, The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (which comprises of The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater, the first three books in The Spirit War series) sounds very similar to The Lies of Locke Lamora. Both feature charming and witty thieves with burly best friends planning the biggest heist of their career, but the similarities pretty much end there. Eli Monpress is very much its own beast and it includes one of the most unique magic systems I’ve ever read. Happily, it’s also a completed series (five books in total, collected into two omnibus editions, The Legend of Eli Monpress and The Revenge of Eli Monpress) so you can binge-read it to your heart’s content.
Eli Monpress is talented. He’s charming. And he’s a thief.
But not just any thief. He’s the greatest thief of the age – and he’s also a wizard. And with the help of his partners – a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls – he’s going to put his plan into effect.
The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he’ll need to steal some big things. But he’ll start small for now. He’ll just steal something that no one will miss – at least for a while.
Like a king.
The Legend of Eli Monpress includes the novels: The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater.
If you’re ready to explore the genre a little deeper and want a soft entry point to epic fantasy try…
Brandon Sanderson is rapidly achieving legend status and his first series, Mistborn, is a great place to start if you’re a newbie to high fantasy. With an unbelievably well-thought-out magic system (also called a “hard magic” system — i.e. a system where the rules, limits, and cost of magic are very clearly established) and a brisk, pacy plot, Mistborn is the story of what happens after the evil Emperor wins.
For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison. Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark.
Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot.
But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life. Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.
This saga dares to ask a simple question: What if the hero of prophecy fails?
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, the first book in the Farseer Trilogy (which itself is the first Trilogy is the larger Realm of the Elderlings series), is a slower story than Mistborn but it has become one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. Very character-driven, the slower pace of Assassin’s Apprentice allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world that Hobb creates. Published in 1996, it’s also a great bridge between the more old-school fantasy works of the ’70s and ’80s and contemporary fantasy.
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
This post is monstrously long so I’ll wrap it up here. What books have I missed? Where would you send your fantasy-skeptic friends to get a taste of the genre?